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Sin’s effect on the world could be likened to a fragmentation grenade. When the explosive charge is ignited, the grenade fragments into tiny bits that flee from the center in all directions, causing damage everywhere. So it has been since Adam ate the forbidden fruit. Things that God intended to be together have been blown apart. Man’s loving fellowship with God Himself was destroyed; man’s loving fellowship with one another was shattered (beginning with marriage); man’s relationship with creation and creation’s relationship with itself disintegrated. In these main ways and in every other way, sin has blown God’s beautiful universe apart.
Christ came to put it all back together into perfect unity. He said, “Whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). John said that Jesus died “for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one” (John 11:52, NIV). Paul said that God’s eternal purpose is to bring all things in heaven and earth together in Christ (Eph. 1:9–10). Since this is God’s plan, Christ prayed accordingly in John 17, three times asking the Father that all the elect would be one as the Father and the Son are one (vv. 11, 21, 26). This is staggering. In heaven, all the redeemed will be perfectly one, conformed in every respect to the unity of the Trinity.
What does this perfect unity of the Trinity consist of? There are three persons in the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Being of one substance and having one will, They are entirely unified in Their mission. This kind of unity is analogous to the unity that the redeemed will enjoy in heaven.
However, we are not there yet. And in the work of the gospel, especially in the life of a local church or a Christian ministry, there is inevitably going to be disagreement. Brothers and sisters are going to see things differently and must address those differences in the most redemptive way for the glory of God and the advance of the gospel. It seems that almost every local church addressed in the New Testament had serious problems with disunity. James asked, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” (James 4:1–3). Paul had to address sinful divisions in the Corinthian church as his first priority (1 Cor. 1:10–12). Even the Apostle Paul himself had a severe disagreement with Barnabas (Acts 15:37–39). In the same way, church history is riddled with godly men who had serious disagreements with each other—Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli; George Whitefield and John Wesley; John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This is a timeless problem that is still plaguing us. Let’s consider five motives and five methods for preserving unity.
motives for preserving unity
Present and eternal spiritual reality. Genuine Christians truly are one in Christ spiritually. From the moment of conversion, we become spiritually one with Christ (Rom. 6:1–4) and therefore with all other Christians. And in heaven, we will be one as the Father and the Son are one, in direct answer to Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17. This reality gives us the basis for working out lesser issues.
Obedience. Paul commands Christians to be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3, NASB).
Witness. Jesus prayed that His followers “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me” (John 17:23, emphasis added). The journey toward a more perfect unity among Christians in this world is a powerful witness to Christ. Conversely, when Christians argue, it affects their ability to hold forth the word of the gospel (Phil. 2:14–16). Sinful Christian conflict is a bad witness to a watching world.
Wisdom. In every robust conflict among genuine Christians, it should be expected that there are usually elements of truth and wisdom on both sides of the issue. I like to think of the solution to every divisive issue as a recipe with multiple ingredients, and both sides must put in their ingredients for the recipe to be complete.
Growth. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17). God uses conflicts to sharpen us, filing off pieces of our sinful selves and honing us for better service.
methods for preserving unity
Love one another. Review the descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7. Start with this: “Love is patient and kind.” Let us remind ourselves continually that we will be spending eternity in heaven together, loving each other perfectly.
Humility. Review the lessons of Philippians 2:1–11. Realize that the conflict is made hotter by the selfishness we all bring to the table. Paul commanded us to consider others better than ourselves and others’ interests as more important than ours.
The Word. All issues must be ultimately resolved by sound exegesis of relevant Scriptures. By “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), we will in all things grow up into Christlike maturity (Eph. 4:15) and discern God’s wisdom for all circumstances.
Romans 14 guidelines. Romans 14 is the handbook for handling debatable issues. One of the key principles is not to judge someone else’s servant (v. 4).
Prayer. Heartfelt prayer when divisions come is vital. Begging God for unity as well as for wisdom, humility, and love between all people involved follows the clear pattern Christ gives us in John 17.